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FILM REVIEW HH

Best in Show

Film Strung Together on Thirty Seconds of Good Jokes

By Jed Horne

Staff Writer

Directed and Co-written by Christopher Guest

Starring Fred Willlard, Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Jim Piddock, and Bob Balaban.

PG-13

The latest release by mockumentary filmmaker Christopher Guest, whose illustrious film credits include This Is Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman, spoofs the peculiar and peculiarly American phenomenon of the dog show. Best in Show focuses on nine would-be blue-ribbon winners, each one more absurd than the next.

The Swans (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), a hopelessly neurotic yuppie couple sporting matching braces and over-the-top L.L. Bean outfits, are convinced that their weimaraner’s psychological problems began when he wandered into the room while they were having sex. The Opposite of Sex’s John Michael Higgins and This Is Spinal Tap’s Michael McKean work the requisite gay stereotype as Scott and Stefan, and their flamboyance is only outdone by the hair styles they give their Shih-tsu Agnes.

Cookie and Gerry Fleck (Catherine O’Hara and co-writer Eugene Levy) are an absurdly dumpy suburban couple who have written an entire record’s worth of out-of-tune songs about their terrier, Winky. Harlan Pepper, played by Guest, is a redneck from Pinenut, North Carolina, with a gift for ventriloquism and a passion for his bloodhound, Hubert. The show’s previous winner, an anemic-looking poodle named Rhapsody in White, is owned by the shamelessly gold-digging Anna Nicole Smith wannabe Sherri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), who used her good looks to build a kennel and hire Anne Heche look-alike Christy (Jane Lynch) as Rhapsody’s handler.

As each of the contestants prepares and enters into Philadelphia’s Mayflower Dog Show, their hang-ups, neuroses, and just good old-fashioned weirdness are played out in scenes that vary from ecstatically hilarious to excruciatingly uncomfortable. Despite all the stereotypes, Scott and Stefan’s parading is really funny, as is the running joke about Cookie Fleck’s checkered past. The only characters in the movie weirder than the contestants are Cookie’s ex-boyfriends (who number in the hundreds). And while Ann Cabot’s romantic tirade with Christy provides another sublime moment of humor, Christy herself is more sad than humorous. It’s easy to make fun of crazy characters, but nearly impossible to laugh at psychologically damaged ones, and Christy’s sick obsession with winning is so pitiable and completely lacking in humor that you almost feel dirty watching it. Ditto for the Swans -- what they represent in society is so deserving of ridicule that you almost can’t laugh at it.

Mean-spiritedness, the defining characteristic of the contestants’ world view, provides a few good yuks (particularly entertaining is Meg’s mental breakdown after losing her dog’s squeeze toy), but is somehow unsatisfying. Partly this is the fault of the acting, but making someone care about characters designed to be hated is something that even gifted actors rarely accomplish.

The problem is that, short of a few really good sight gags, Best In Show fails to pick up on what makes real documentaries (and a few good fake ones, like This Is Spinal Tap) really good -- a sense of empathy. Campiness and social commentary rarely work unless they are accompanied by some sort of human interest. Fenton Bailey’s equally caustic and equally campy The Eyes of Tammy Faye, released earlier this year, provides a prime example: even though the film’s subject was one of the most laughably absurd (and scary) characters in post Christian-revival America, Tammy came across as a real human being, something that only a very few of the perhaps too-many characters in Best In Show can do well. Gerry Fleck is the only exception: his sad dignity in the face of an adulterous wife, a peculiar physical deformity and all-around geekiness make him a real, even if not necessarily likeable, character. Gerry’s very human performance perhaps explains the film’s otherwise unexplainable conclusion.

The most unforgivable error Guest makes, however, is in the movie’s marketing. Even though it doesn’t have any big-name stars or flashy explosions, Best In Show is guilty of one of the most onerous offenses of bad action flicks: it gives away its best scenes during the film’s trailer. What’s left after the jokes that everyone’s already seen is a series of unrelated and mostly offensively stereotypical scenes involving characters that are hard to care about. It is the theatrical equivalent of calling people names. It is too bad that Guest, given his considerable resumÉ and a great setup for a film, can’t grow up enough to intelligently poke fun at a decidedly deserving subject.